Three weeks to go until the first nominating contest, and we have three margin-of-error races, according to new NBC/WSJ/Marist early-state polls released on Sunday. In Iowa on the Republican side, Ted Cruz leads Donald Trump by four points among likely caucus-goers, 28%-24%, with Marco Rubio at 13% and Ben Carson at 11%. In Iowa on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is ahead of Bernie Sanders by just three points, 48%-45%, with Martin O'Malley at 5%. In New Hampshire, Sanders leads Clinton by four points, 50%-46%. The only early-state race NOT within in the margin of error is the GOP contest in the Granite State, where Donald Trump is ahead by 16 points. But get this: He's followed by Rubio at 14%, Chris Christie at 12%, Ted Cruz at 10%, and John Kasich and Jeb Bush are tied at 9% each. That's five candidates splitting 54% of the vote, and four establishment-backed candidates (Rubio, Christie, Kasich, Bush) dividing up 44%.
Yet these poll results show something larger than just tightening races in Iowa and New Hampshire -- they demonstrate that BOTH Democrats and Republicans are facing battles over the heart and soul of their parties. Are Republicans truly going to nominate an insurgent/outsider like Trump or Cruz? Or will the establishment win the day with a Rubio or someone else? Similarly, are Democrats going to nominate Clinton? Or are they truly going to go with someone who wasn't a member of their party until recently?
Let's Dance (with independents)
Hillary Clinton's campaign is up with a new TV ad emphasizing her ability to take on and beat the top Republicans. But our NBC/WSJ/Marist polls of Iowa and New Hampshire don't exactly back that up.
- Clinton leads Trump by eight points among registered voters (48%-40%), but Sanders is ahead of him by 13 (51%-38%);
- Cruz tops Clinton by four points (47%-43%), but Sanders beats him by five (47%-42%);
- And up Rubio is up by five points over Clinton (47%-42%), while he's tied with Sanders (44%-44%).
In New Hampshire
- Clinton is ahead of Trump by just one point (45%-44%), but Sanders tops him by 19 points (56%-37%);
- Cruz beats Clinton by four points (48%-44%), but Sanders leads him by another 19 points (55%- 36%);
- And Rubio bests Clinton by 12 points (52%-40%), while Sanders leads him by nine points (50%-41%).
The reason why Sanders is outperforming Clinton in these hypothetical general-election matchups? It's all about independents. In Iowa, for example, Cruz tops Clinton by eight points among independents (46%-38%), while Sanders leads him by 10 points here (48%-38%). And in New Hampshire, Cruz is ahead of Clinton by one point among indies (45%-44%), while Sanders beats him by 28 points (59%-31%).
Not surprisingly, Sanders' campaign is touting those general-election numbers. "There was fresh evidence on Sunday that confirms Bernie Sanders would be the most electable Democratic Party nominee for president because he performs much better than Hillary Clinton," the campaign blasted out to reporters yesterday. But here is a legitimate question to ask: Outside of maybe New Hampshire (where Sanders enjoys a geographic advantage), are Sanders' general-election numbers fool's gold? When is the last time you've seen national Republicans issue even a press release on Sanders? Given the back-and-forth over Bill Clinton's past -- and given Sanders calling Bill Clinton's behavior"disgraceful" -- when is the last time anyone has brought up the candidate's 1972 essay about a woman fantasizing about "being raped by three men simultaneously"? Bottom line: It's always instructive to take general-election polling with a grain of salt, especially 300 days before the general election. And that's particularly true for a candidate who hasn't actually gone through the same wringer the other candidates have.
Speaking of Bill Clinton's past, Donald Trump acknowledged on "Meet the Press" over the weekend that he's wielding it as a threat against Hillary Clinton.
TODD: You've said you're willing to bring up Bill Clinton's past with women if Hillary Clinton attacks you for being a sexist. So is that a threat to her?...
TRUMP: Well, I don't want to say it's a threat.
TODD: What is it?
TRUMP: But it is a threat, of course. I mean, I can call it a nicer name, yeah. She was saying he has tendencies toward being sexist.
TODD: Talking about who? You?
TRUMP: Talking about me. And I said, wait a minute: She's married to an abuser. A woman claimed rape, and all sorts of things. I mean, horrible things. You read the books--
TODD: You do know, though, if you bring it up, people are going to bring up your--
TRUMP: It's okay.
TODD: I mean, your first divorce was ugly.
TRUMP: But, you know what? I wasn't the President of the United States. And I wasn't dealing in the Oval Office, all right? A big difference. I wasn't the president. And my first wife thinks I'm great. And my second wife and my-- and I have a great marriage. I mean, I have a great marriage. So I mean, it's fine. I'm not saying don't bring anything up with me. But when she says that, I had to bring it up. And by the way, they've become very unresponsive since then.
Hillary Clinton responded to Trump on CBS yesterday, per NBC's Monica Alba. "Well, if he wants to engage in personal attacks from the past, that's his prerogative. You know, so be it. I'm going to draw the distinctions between where I stand and where he stands when it comes to equal pay for women, raising the minimum wage, which affects two-thirds of the women, who are the ones receiving the minimum wage, protecting a woman's right to make the most personal health care decisions." Clinton added, Well, [Bill Clinton's past has] been fair game going back to the Republicans for some years. They can do it again if they want to. That can be their choice as to how to run in this campaign. Didn't work before. It won't work again."
We Can Be Heroes (though not until the general election)
There was one other piece of news from "Meet the Press" yesterday: Previewing tomorrow's State of the Union, Obama Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said there would be no endorsement from the president until the Democrats have a nominee.
TODD: Okay, and when can we expect [Obama] to make his choice public on who he supports in the Democratic Primary?
MCDONOUGH: We'll do exactly what has been done in the past, which is when the nominee will be set, then the president will be out there--
TODD: And so, he's not going to go early?
TODD: He's not going to use this gun issue as an excuse to say, "I'm going to support Secretary Clinton."
MCDONOUGH: No, no.
On the trail
Donald Trump holds a rally in Windham, NH at 11:00 am ET… Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O'Malley participate in the "Brown & Black Forum" in Des Moines, IA at 8:00 pm ET… Clinton holds an earlier organizing event in Waterloo, IA… Bernie Sanders stumps in Perry, IA, while Martin O'Malley is in Newton, IA… Ted Cruz campaigns in Baton Rouge, LA… Marco Rubio stumps in Florida… Ben Carson spends his day in Iowa… So does Carly Fiorina.
Countdown to NBC/YouTube debate in SC: 6 days
Countdown to Iowa: 21 days
Countdown to New Hampshire: 29 days
—NBC News' Carrie Dann contributed to this post, which first appeared on NBCNews.com.